Science fiction has generally been considered a left-wing preoccupation. Not only is the readership of science fiction stories younger than average, but the nature of science fiction lends itself towards progressivism. Female characters such as Lieutenant Ripley of Alien had great appeal among the generation that had cast off the moral strictures of the 1950s, but a right-wing yang has always existed within the dark yin of the milieu.
The political atmosphere of science fiction reflects an old-school leftism that’s almost entirely different to the identity politics of the social justice warriors who dominate the media of today. The leftism of science fiction was always more libertarian than today’s culture would prefer, and was written without the need to shoehorn a moral lecture into the story.
Philip K Dick wrote his science fiction works, to a large extent, out of inspiration drawn from his hatred of authoritarianism and authoritarian systems. This is why his protagonists, like Bob Childan in Man in The High Castle, were usually everymen who lacked any aristocratic pretenses. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War depicted a future world in which hedonistic homosexuality was standard practice and a kind of communism had taken over the resource distribution of the planet.
Realistically, it’s hard to imagine a high-tech society that hadn’t also managed to solve the vast majority of its social problems, for the simple reason that if a society has the resources to be high-tech it also has the resources to feed, clothe and house everyone. The essence of cyberpunk, however, is “high tech, low life”; Brave New World is not cyberpunk, and neither is 1984, for the reasons that these works deal with heroic and upstanding characters.
This essence lends itself to a conservative orientation for two reasons.
The first is that it suggests that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” which is a deeply conservative sentiment. It’s a break with the easy utopias envisioned in atomic era works like Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man or Aldous Huxley’s The Island. These works portray future societies which, although they have their problems, have generally solved all the major survival challenges (although The Demolished Man has a cyberpunk vibe in that the protagonist is also the antagonist).
In cyberpunk, by contrast, it’s common that society has either collapsed or become dystopic. The America of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash has disintegrated into a patchwork of city states, fiefdoms, armed enclaves and chaos zones, which goes against the common narrative of an easy ascent into becoming a space-faring civilisation common to most earlier science fiction.
Likewise in William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, where society has rotted out from the inside, meaning that people have been forced to take on a hard edge to their personality and behaviour in order to survive. In Gibson’s stories, crime exists for the same reasons it exists in our own world; greed, fear, stupidity and cruelty cast their shadows on every chapter.
This is a conservative sentiment because it directly opposes the common leftist belief that it’s possible to build a utopia. Cyberpunk works warn us of the terrible possibilities that are likely to result from attempts to build a perfect world – Akira could be considered the modern Frankenstein.
The second reason is that “high tech, low life” reflects a cynical interpretation of human nature. The protagonist of the Altered Carbon series, Lieutenant Kovacs, never gets fooled or manipulated on account of automatically assuming the worst of everyone he encounters. He is particularly cynical, verging on paranoid, and this quality serves him well as it keeps him one step ahead of the criminals trying to kill him. Cyberpunk heroes are often like this – more antihero than good old boy.
Much like the first reason, this low-life element of cyberpunk reminds us that ideas of utopias are just dreams. Life finds a way, and so does crime. This is essentially conservative because it asserts that human nature cannot fundamentally be changed.
Humans have not been intrinsically good at any point in the past, and so there’s no reason to think they should be in the future. Therefore, we can assume that humans (especially young men) will aggressively push the boundaries just as much in times to come. As is the case today, these people will often go too far in asserting their wills, and this can lead to reprisals, and thereby the whole dark side of the human drama that cyberpunk is known for.
It is not the contention of this essay that this paradox detracts from the power of cyberpunk media. To the contrary, cyberpunk draws its power from the tension inherent in the juxtaposition between the desire for order and the desire for freedom.
Many of the protagonists in cyberpunk stories just want to be left alone to enjoy their lives, but violence and trouble finds them anyway, and they have to learn to become hard in order to cope. The protagonist of Metrophage is an everyman who could have been a protagonist in a Philip K Dick story, but instead of the mind-bending confusion of a PKD story he gets dragged into the noir of a cyberpunk one.
This sentiment of escaping an oppressive, totalitarian force is also a common sentiment for many intelligent, free-thinking people nowadays, who just want to be left alone to experiment with consciousness in the form of psychoactive substances without being attacked by law enforcement officers.
In this balance, cyberpunk appeals to a more intelligent kind of reader. The resolution of the cyberpunk paradox might be found in that punk is an expression of rebellion against those same human forces that create political dystopias and faceless corporate juggernauts. In this rebellion it is an affirmation of the human spirit, more libertarian than either left of right, and this is perhaps where cyberpunk gets most of its appeal.
Vince McLeod is the author of ANZAC cyberpunk work The Verity Key. If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of his and other VJMP essays in the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis).